A week after the first Zika infection was reported in Maryland, health officials are mobilizing to combat the mosquito-borne virus that is suspected of causing thousands of birth defects across Latin America and the Caribbean. Researchers have been predicting it was only a matter of time before the virus showed up in the U.S., and cases have already been reported in neighboring Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia. Given the urgent need to prevent the virus' spread, the response to an impending public health crisis can't come a moment too soon.
As The Sun's Andrea K. McDaniels reported this week, a consortium of research organizations convened by the Baltimore-based Global Virus Network aims to link researchers working on Zika around the world and create a database for the latest research. Many of the scientists involved in that effort also collaborated on last year's Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Today, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the formation of a Strategic Zika Preparedness Working Group to coordinate the response to Zika across all city departments. Given the area's history as a center for cutting-edge biomedical and epidemiological research, it's altogether fitting this massive effort is being organized here.
But the consortium and task force will have their work cut out for them. Far less is known about Zika than about other mosquito-borne pathogens — only two weeks ago, for example, researchers were unaware that the virus could also be transmitted through sexual contact — and despite their sense of urgency health officials are still scrambling to keep up with the flood of new data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a rapidly evolving threat. The city task force, led by Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen, is mounting a major public health information campaign to alert residents to the potential risks this spring and summer when mosquito populations peak.
There's no effective vaccine against the virus nor a reliable test to detect its presence in the blood. Indeed, until recently researchers gave Zika a relatively low priority because its symptoms appeared milder than those of similar mosquito-borne pathogens such as dengue or chikungunya, which are also transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries Zika. Up to 80 percent of people infected with Zika show no symptoms at all or suffer only minor, flu-like symptoms. The only case reported case in Maryland involved someone who recently traveled to one of the 20 countries where there has been a Zika outbreak, and that person has since recovered.
But the suspected (though unconfirmed) link between Zika and microcephaly — an irreversible birth defect that causes infants to be born with abnormally small heads, and Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder that can lead to paralysis — has focused attention on the potentially more serious threats the virus poses to pregnant women. The specter of horribly deformed babies has conjured up the worst nightmares in women of childbearing age, and those fears are compounded by the fact that so much about the disease remains unknown.
Those unknowns are also deeply disturbing to the World Health Organization, which last week declared a global public health emergency and advised pregnant women and those who may soon become pregnant to avoid travel to countries where the virus is prevalent. The agency is determined not to repeat the mistakes of last year that allowed Ebola to rage out of control for months in West Africa, killing 11,000 people. The CDC is also urging state and local governments to intensify mosquito-control efforts like spraying and emptying containers and still-water pools where mosquitoes breed. (Maryland's climate is too cold for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, but researchers suspect the region's most common mosquito strain, Aedes albopictus, can also transmit Zika.)
There's no question that the public is alarmed by reports of Zika's spread across the Southern Hemisphere and the frightening toll it appears to be taking on mothers and infants. But for the moment there is little danger of people being infected unless they travel to one of the countries where Zika is rampant. Experts also seem to think that the disease clears a person's system within a few weeks and doesn't pose a threat to later pregnancies.
As long as people take reasonable precautions when the warm weather returns, such as using insect repellent, putting screens on doors and windows and wearing clothing that covers their extremities, their risk of infection is low. But health officials are right to start preparing now in case the situation changes. As in so many other fields of human endeavor, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.